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Non verbal communication in intercultural study

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    Non- verbal communication

    Non- verbal communication is a term that is used to refer to actions which are different from speech but which, just like speech, can be used to convey information from one person to the next; thereby facilitating communication. Such actions may include facial expressions, gesticulation using the arms and the hands, varying postures, positions and various movements of the body as well as the feet. It may also include paralinguistic and vocal qualities which refer to the underlying speech aspects such as the intensity, speech errors and pauses, the rate of speech as well as the duration (Mehrabian, 2007). Simple words can therefore, carry a much deeper meaning depending on the non- verbal cues present in the delivery of the message. Other than speech and paralinguistics, there are other ways through which people may communicate non- verbally such as in their manner of dressing, that is, the clothing or the hairstyle, the eye contact or the gaze, their orientation as well as proxemics. Orientation refers to the way that people will position themselves in relation to others while proxemics refers to how one utilizes space in relation to other people (Beck et al, 2002).

    Non- verbal communication is a universal phenomenon occurring in virtually every culture worldwide. Emotions such as happiness or sadness are typically expressed in the same manner world wide, such as in smiling or laughing when happy as opposed to crying when sad. However, there are some distinct observable differences in non- verbal communication across the cultures. Different actions may hold different meanings culture to culture. Thus the meaning of a gesture in one culture may mean something totally different in another. What is good in one culture may be totally offensive in another. It is therefore important to understand the cross cultural differences in non verbal communication. This paper seeks to compare non- verbal communication in the U.S culture vis-à-vis the Asian culture, citing any similarities as well as differences.

    Non verbal communication in the American culture

    There are several gestures and non- verbal cues which are distinctive to the American culture. For instance, Americans will usually greet each other with a firm, solid handshake and they usually accompany this with direct eye contact. Not looking at other person directly in the eye as a conversation is taking place is typically taken to indicate weakness, shyness or insincerity. When greeting someone who is at a distance, saying goodbye, or simply trying to get another’s attention, Americans will raise the arm and wave. When the wave is followed by an inward scooping of the hand or if the index finger is raised as the palm is directed at the other person’s face followed by a curling motion of the hand, then it is taken to be a beckon

     or a summon. When the index and middle finger are placed in a V shape with the palm facing out, then this is taken to indicate peace or victory. When the forefinger is extended and a circular motion of the hand made, usually near the temple or the ear then this is taken to indicate that someone is crazy (Imai, n.d; “Non verbal communication mode”, n.d).

    Americans also demonstrate approval through hand gesticulation. For instance, when the thumb and forefinger are made to form a circle while the other three fingers are spread upwards, this usually means O.K or yes. This gesture is used quite often and enthusiastically. Another gesture with almost the same meaning is when the thumb is raised while the fist remains closed. This gesture also indicates support and approval or cheering someone on (Imai, n.d).

    Head gestures are also used to convey various meanings in the American culture. Nodding of the head indicates agreement while shaking of the head indicates disagreement. When someone scratches the head especially while communicating with someone else then this is indicates thoughtfulness, confusion of skepticism. Direct eye contact indicates attentiveness and shows that someone is listening and is interested in what the other person tries to say (Imai, n.d). At the same time, it is worth noting that Americans consider it rude to stare, especially if one is staring at a stranger. However, there are places such as the West Coast where it is normal for people to cast a glance at strangers as they pass, probably even smile and say a quick hi before promptly looking the other way. Thus direct eye contact is encouraged and discouraged depending on the circumstances (Levine and Adelman, 1993). Eye communication is also evident in other areas such as when someone winks using one eye it is taken to be flirtatious or to indicate that the two share a secret. An eyebrow flash especially when done by men is also a flirtatious gesture while rolling the eyes indicates amazement or skepticism (Imai, n.d).  Too little eye contact has a negative connotation in the American culture. It shows that the person is disinterested, is not paying attention or is up to no good. The American phrase, “never trust a person who does not look you in the eye” is indicative of how Americans are suspicious of people who do not look at others directly ion the eye when making conversation (Levine and Adelman, 1993).

    When an American cups the ear, it indicates that they cannot hear what the other person is saying. A wrinkling of the nose indicates disgust; usually by a bad smell. This can also be indicated when someone holds the nose using the thumb and forefinger. Sticking the tongue or out indicates contempt, as does spitting which is considered rude and insulting. Yawning indicates that a person is tired or is bored. A stroke of the chin or tapping of the head using a forefinger also indicates that a person is contemplating something. Whistling indicates approval and is typically used to cheer or applaud especially in events. It is also used by men to attract the attention of a woman or to show that she is pretty (Imai, n.d).

    Legs and feet are also used in non- verbal communication in the American culture. Standing with the legs apart is usually indicative of an aggressive and masculine posture associated men. Women usually stand with a narrow posture. Other gestures include hand clapping which is taken to indicate appreciation, folded arms are taken to imply defensiveness and standing with the arms akimbo implies that one is angry or impatient. It may also be taken to indicate aggressiveness or resistance. Shaking the fist indicates anger; upraised arms indicate victory or surrender and hand holding is a sign of affection and friendship especially with children. A high five indicates congratulations. Snapping of the fingers is done to get someone’s attention, crossing of the fingers implies good luck, pointing is done by extending the Index finger and hand cuts across the top of the head show that one is impatient. Moving the finger from side to side shows disapproval and rubbing the thumb together with the forefinger indicates money. Americans also hitchhike by making a fist with the thumb upwards and moving it in a sweeping motion (Imai, n.d).

    Facial expressiveness is a crucial component of the American culture. The smile for instance, is taken to indicate pleasure and may be used to show affection, express politeness or mask one’s true feelings. Americans are very generous with their smiles; even to strangers in public places although this is not common in big cities such as New York and in such places, people may be viewed as cold and distant. They are very expressive people and show their emotions openly. However, individual as well as ethnic differences within the United States will also determine how emotionally expressive one is (Levine & Adelman, 1993).

    Proxemics as applied in the American culture involves a social distance, also referred to as interpersonal or conversation distance, of approximately 30 inches from the other party (Imai, n.d). Others have defined it as standing at an arms length and a reduced personal space is usually taken to indicate greater intimacy. On the other hand if the person is encroaching, then it is indicative of aggressiveness. Subconsciously, there is a distance that everyone likes to keep and within which they feel comfortable while communicating to other people. However, it will vary depending on the nature of the relationship. For instance, one is more inclined to stand closer to a family member than a random stranger. Americans are by culture, not touch oriented and if they accidentally get too close to someone or touch them, they are quick to excuse themselves. They are also very uncomfortable with an intrusion into their personal space and this may lead them to react in a defensive manner (Levine & Adelman, 1993).

    Non verbal communication in the Asian culture

    The Asian cultural values are rooted in respect and deference to one’s elders and respecting authority without question. The parents lay the law while the children follow it without any questions. The father is viewed as an authoritative figure, is distant and is respected as a key authoritative figure. People are discouraged from exhibiting an independent attitude as this may disrupt familial harmony. In deed, the honor of the family is to be upheld at all times and is always on the look out not to bring shame or dishonor to the family. Collective responsibility, humility, control of emotions and fatalism are highly encouraged. On the other hand, risk taking and a sense of individualism are highly frowned upon.  It is these cultural attitudes that determine the behavior of the people and in the process shapes their non- verbal communication (Imai, n.d).

    Generally, all Asians share some common non verbal communication cues. For instance, they exchange greetings through a handshake. They may also bow as a sign of respect. Direct eye contact is usually discouraged. When beckoning or summoning someone, Asians will face the palm in a downward position and the fingers are then moved in a scratching movement. Pointing at something using the fingers is avoided. Elderly people are usually accorded a lot of respect and non- verbal behavior directed towards them will indicate this. Asians are also not a touch oriented people. They avoid overt displays of affection. Smiling and/ or laughing in the Asian culture can indicate a number of emotions such as happiness, apologies anger, confusion or sadness. It is considered rude, especially for women to show an open mouth such as when laughing or yawning. Thus the women usually cover their mouths when engaging in any action that may require an open mouth display. Listening is indicative of politeness and thoughtfulness and it is extremely frowned upon to interrupt a conversation. When sitting, one is expected to keep a balanced posture and avoid slouching. One is also encouraged to cross the legs at the ankles or knees as opposed to placing an ankle over the knee. In Asian culture, pushing and shoving especially when in a public place is means nothing and people will not apologize neither will they expect any apology (Imai, n.d).

    Some Asian non- verbal communication are distinctive of a particular ethnic group. For instance, the Chinese consider it rude for someone to beckon them by facing the palm towards themselves while curling the index finger towards the body in a back and forth motion; a gesture that is reserved for animals. Pointing is done using an open hand while foot gestures are generally avoided. For the Japanese on the other hand, bowing is the preferred way of greeting. When shaking hands, they prefer a light grip with the eyes averted. They consider it rude to state and direct eye contact is discouraged. Standing with one’s hands in the pockets is also considered rude especially when talking to someone. They also wave the hand from side to side in front of their face to show that they do not understand what is being said. In Korea, women do not shake hands with the men but simply give a slight nod as a greeting. To beckon someone, they may use the open hand or the middle finger. Loud talking is also discouraged, so is spitting in public. Elderly people are shown respect by standing when they enter the room. Men also have a higher priority over women and usually walk in front of them and go through the door before the women. In the Philippines, the eyebrow flash is a greeting, so is the shaking of hands which is done informally manner by both sexes.  Unlike other Asians, the Filipinos are touch oriented. To bring attention to an object, they will point towards it using pursed lips or they may simply shift their eyes towards it. The Taiwanese also consider it rude for someone to blink their eyes repeatedly at someone (Imai, n.d).

    Comparison of the Asian culture and American culture

    There are several similarities and differences that can be observed when comparing the Asian and the American culture.

    Greetings gestures:

    The shaking of hands is the accepted form of greeting in both cultures even though its origin is in the Western World. The traditional way of exchanging greetings by the Asians is through bow their heads slightly and some ethnic groups such as the Japanese, bowing is still the preferred mode of greeting and it signifies humility and respect. To the Americans however, bowing is considered to be subservient and an acceptance to be dominated. Thus the American may feel uncomfortable with this aspect of the Asian culture. It is also worth noting that while the American handshake is usually firm and solid; the Asians prefer a lighter or gentler grip. To the Americans giving a loose handshake may make one appear weak. Asians also discourage the exchange of hugs and kisses when greeting someone but for the Americans, this has never been an issue of concern (Imai, n.d).

    Eye communication:

    The Americans encourage direct eye contact when communicating while and this is taken to be a sign of attentiveness.  Not looking at other person directly in the eye as a conversation is taking place is typically taken to indicate weakness, shyness or insincerity. Conversely however, the Asians find direct eye contact especially when it is prolonged, to be rude, signifying a lack of respect and intimidating. They prefer to avert their eyes even when communicating especially to persons of a more senior position and this is considered to be a sign of respect and deference (Levine & Adelman, 1993). Also, an eyebrow flash is a flirtatious gesture in the American culture while in the Philippines the eyebrow flash can be used as a form of greeting.  However, both cultures agree that it is rude to stare, especially as strangers (Imai, n.d).

    Hand gesticulation:

    In the American culture, people will use the index finger to point or to bring attention to something. Conversely, in the Asian culture, it is considered unacceptable, even rude and insulting, for one to point using the index finger alone. Instead, pointing is done using an open hand while the Filipinos attract attention to something by simply directing their gaze to the object. Beckoning or summoning someone also varies with these two cultures. In the American culture, one can be summoned by a wave of the hand, which is then turned inward in a scoop; or they may be turn the palm towards themselves and beckon using a curling motion of the index finger. When beckoning or summoning someone, Asians will face the palm in a downward position and the fingers are then moved in a scratching manner. The American version of beckoning is actually considered to be rude by the Asians and is only reserved for animals (Imai, n.d). Waving the hand from side to side which usually means ‘no’ in the Asian culture, implies waving goodbye in the American culture.


    Both Asians and Americans, with the exception of the Filipinos are not touch- oriented people. The Americans are actually very conscious of their personal space and in the event that they touch someone accidentally, they will be very apologetic. However, even though Asians are also not touch- oriented, the personal or social distance varies from culture to culture vis-à-vis the social distance of the Americans. For instance, the Chinese have a much less conversational distance and will stand much more closely than Americans. On the other hand, a Japanese employee will usually stand farther apart from the employer than will an American employee when having a conversation. Americans are very quick to excuse themselves in the event of an accidental touching but Asians will not offer an apology neither will they expect one as they push their way especially public places (Imai, n.d).

    Emotional and facial expressiveness

    Americans are generally open and expressive people and they do not hold back their emotions especially whether it is happiness, sadness or anger. They are also inclined to display their affection towards each other publicly. On the other hand, Asians frown upon any public display of affection. Emotional control is considered a virtue and expressing emotions openly in is highly frowned upon. Even when angry, Asians will not shout or raise their voice. Greif and Ephross (2005) also point out that for the Asians, silence may be indicative of a hesitation to differ with someone who is considered a leader who is a leader. It may also indicate a hesitation to express one’s anger though it might be taken to imply compliance. Smiling in the American culture is usually taken to mean pleasure but in the Asian culture, it may simply imply deference (Imai,n.d; Levine & Adelman 1993). Asians also try to keep their facial expressions as minimal as possible (“Non verbal communication modes”, n.d).


    The American culture is distinctively different, not only from the Asian culture but also from other cultures around the entire globe. In deed, no two cultures are exactly the same. As such, understanding non- verbal communication across the cultures is extremely important. Not only because it will help one to get along well with others from a different culture, but also because it can save someone a lot of embarrassment as they use a familiar gesture in another setting only to discover that this gesture indicates something that is completely different in another culture. For instance when an American places his feet on his desk in front of an Asian, the Asian might take offence since in their culture, feet are considered to be the quite lowly and dirty. As Greif and Ephross (2005) also point out, those who do not understand the Asian culture may view Asians as passive aggressive people, devoid of emotion and unable to communicate. But this is not necessarily the case. On the other hand, Americans may be viewed by Asians as too aggressive and forthright, even disrespectful to others due to the American aggressive nature. It has been said that actions speak louder than words. Therefore understanding non- verbal communication is probably more important than understanding verbal communication.


    Greif, G and Ephross, P (2005). Group work with populations at risk. Oxford University Press


    Levine and Adelman (1993). Beyond Language. Prentice Hall

    Imai, G (n.d). Gestures: Body Language and Non verbal communication. TASSI. Retrieved


    Mehrabian, A. (2007). Nonverbal communication. Transaction Publishers

    Beck, A., Bennett and Wall, P (2002). Communication studies: the essential introduction. New York, NY: Routledge

    Non- Verbal communication modes (n.d). BSAD 560 Intercultural Business Relations. Retrieved 27.4.2009



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